The ‘Je suis Charlie’ slogan and hashtag can hardly have escaped many people’s notice this last week. It arose in the immediate aftermath of the Charlie Hebdo killings, as a sign of support and solidarity – of personal identification with those murdered by Islamist extremists, and alignment with their values against those of their killers. Since then it’s gone viral and been picked up by millions around the world.
Now when I first saw it I briefly misread the ‘Je suis’ as ‘Jesus’. And looking again it struck me that, run together in the hashtag #jesuischarlie, it could equally be read as ‘Jesu is Charlie’. And of course, that got me thinking…
Obviously on one level this is just a random and slightly silly bit of wordplay. ‘Je suis’ could always be re-read as ‘Jesu is’, and I’m fairly sure that’s not meaningful. E.g. ‘Je suis un haddock’. Not that anyone would actually say that. Unless they were a haddock I suppose.
And yet, I wonder if God does sometimes speak – at least to me – through mishearings, misreadings and even terrible puns. There are certainly plenty of examples of the latter in the Old Testament prophets. I forget the details but I think it’s in the first chapter of Zechariah where God asks the prophet what he sees, and it’s a bowl of ripe figs, which happens to sound like the Hebrew word for ‘destruction’ or something cheerful… look it up for yourself if you’re interested 😉 .
So, running with this for the moment, is there any mileage in the idea that ‘Jesu is Charlie’, or indeed in similarly misreading the other recent imitative hashtags ‘JesuisJuif’ (I am Jewish) or ‘JesuisAhmed’ (after a Muslim policeman also killed by the same gunmen)? I think there just might be.
The principle of identification
So primarily it’s the principle of identification. All around the world ordinary people are choosing to identify with and stand alongside the cartoonists massacred by radicalised jihadists. Surely it’s at least a possibility that Jesus might choose to do the same, to say with all these others ‘I am Charlie’?
For identifying with us is at the very heart of what Jesus does; it’s even arguably core to who he is. We recently looked at incarnation and some of the reasons why the Almighty God might have chosen to become ‘a slob like one of us’. And chief among these reasons for me is complete identification with us at the very deepest level.
And perhaps Jesus identifies with us first and foremost not in our strength but in our weakness, our sorrow, our brokenness, our vulnerability; not so much in our success (though he does that too) as in our defeat and failure and loss, even our death.
There’s the deeply challenging story of the Sheep and the Goats in Matthew 25, where Christ proclaims “whatsoever you did to the least of my brothers, you did it to me”. Again, it’s total identification, and above all with the ones in greatest need. It seems that if we feed the hungry, care for the sick, or champion the oppressed we do it not only for Jesus but somehow to Jesus. And conversely if we reject them we reject the Jesus who not only loves them but in some mysterious way is them. And indeed is us. And is Charlie.
Jesus is – a blasphemer?
Many of course would look askance at the idea that the holy Lord Jesus really identify with cartoonists who penned profane, obscene, even in some views blasphemous, drawings. But I think Jesus may not be so fussed about blasphemy or profanity as many of his followers are. And I believe that Jesus identifies with us in all our humanity, even in our flawed and sinful humanity. ‘He who was without sin became sin for us’. Though Christ himself is sinless, he identifies with sinful people, if not perhaps with everything they think, say or do.
I’ll admit that I’m not completely comfortable with all of the ‘blasphemous’ Charlie Hebdo cartoons. To me they do seem unnecessarily offensive, and frankly just a bit juvenile and facile – some of them make Viz look like the last word in sophistication. But nonetheless I’m still broadly happy to say ‘I am Charlie’, because I’m not identifying with everything the cartoonists did or drew but with their core humanity, with their right to live and to speak and write and at times to be stupid and offensive, in common with all humans.
And I suspect that Jesus too would be happy to identify with them. Jesus after all was notoriously short – even downright rude – with religious authorities, with religious hypocrisy and bigotry. It was in many ways this tendency to offend religious sensibilities, and to say things deemed as blasphemous, that got him killed. In this sense at least Jesus really could say ‘I am Charlie’. Perhaps he might even have done a stint at the magazine had he been on Earth today.
Jesus is – a jihadi?
But what of the final unthinkable – could Jesus identify with the Kouachi brothers and other jihadist killers? This seems a huge stretch. Still, cautiously I’d have to say yes I think so, in a particular sense. For again, Jesus identifies with all of us as people, in our flawed and broken humanity – however bad we are, however vile our attitudes or violent our actions. That does not mean he condones those attitudes or actions.
For me this is part of what the cross is about – Jesus identifying with us at our worst. Again, he who was sinless ‘became sin for us’. On the cross he took on all our vileness and violence, became for a time both the recipient and representative of it. And in that darkest place, rather than cursing those who beat and killed him he forgave them. He loved his enemies even as they tortured him, and he calls us to the same hard path.
So I do not believe Jesus would say ‘I am Charlie’ in an exclusive sense that means ‘I am not those who are against Charlie’. Jesus is all of us, in his incarnation and crucifixion. I do not believe Jesus takes sides in our conflicts; rather he seeks always to reconcile, to resolve, to restore relationship.
The only way of peace ultimately is through forgiveness and reconciliation, not through further violence and vengeance, a cycle which never ends. I don’t know what this path of peace looks like when we’re dealing with radicalised extremists who only want to kill, not negotiate. But I believe we cannot ever afford merely to vilify and hate, nor must we divide the world into ‘them’ and ‘us’, or ‘I am Charlie and you are not Charlie’. That is not the way of Jesus.
But then, maybe I’m just a haddock.